Aga Khan Academy – Prison Break

My parents might not have placed any silver spoons in our mouths at birth, but they did try their best to instill high morals. Essentially, even though cash was sometimes hard to come by, the little they had was acquired by honest means. One would expect their son to have inherited the same values. But alas, it was not always so.

Aga Khan Academy had a swimming pool; and in our first year, Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim. I’d of course previously done the usual accompany-other-village-boys-to-the-river thing in Kangawa. We’d undress to our undies and jump  in. Some of the kiddos actually knew enough to float and kick in the right direction. But it was such a high bravado activity, the boys as intent on getting wet as they were to wow the group of girls watching, that I normally shied away. Not to mention that we often went to Ngai Ndeithia, as the pool was called, on our way home from the forest to gather firewood. I’d already be feeling inadequate that my load was the lightest compared to the other boys, no pun intended. The last thing I wanted was to display one more area where they excelled better than myself. And there was also the potential for trouble. No one quite knew how deep the pool went, or what debris was underneath the water. Hence the aptly chosen Gikuyu moniker, God-Help-Me.

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Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim.

So Mdogo got us into the pool. We were a gang of four: Muthama, Orora, Bajaber, and myself. This was humiliating work. We were out there on the shallow end treading water, holding onto the ropes for dear life while other folks performed fish-like tumble turns. Learning to swim is like being re-born. All of a sudden you’re in a new dimension of the universe where you’re expected to keep your mouth open, breath, and kick ALL at the same time. No wonder newborns look so damn grouchy. And it was probably worse for the other three because they were all very skilled footballers; I wasn’t. I was just as likely to score past my own goalie as not. But I did have a tenacity and stubbornness when it came to “marking my man” that made me a formidable defender – when I put my mind to it. For me, swimming was a new skill; for them, every second spent inside that Chlorine soup was psychological torture designed to keep them away from their first love: the soccer pitch. I also suspect that Mato and Pato couldn’t swim, and never learnt, but they were hardened Don’t-Cares so Mdogo might just have given up! There was also a future Miss Kenya in the group of novices. But for her it made sense; soon to be clad in two-piece bikinis, it would be a good thing that she didn’t drown during a photo shoot.

That was us on the shallow end. On the opposite side, acting like they’d literally been born in water were Hussein and a bunch of form two boys. Man, those guys were good! From the effortless dive into a pool, to the strokes, to the turn around, they all made taking laps look as easy as eating buttered bread. Needless to say, I was envious. And I vowed that even if I couldn’t do a perfect butterfly, I’d at least make sure I learnt enough not to drown. So I practiced during Physical Ed: that one hour break we got once or twice a week in order to exercise our pubescent bodies. And I practiced after school. At 3:30pm, with classes over, one could go jump in the pool, as long as there was a lifeguard present. Sometimes I even practiced during lunchtime. I was slowly making headway. Even though I couldn’t do it for more than five strokes, I at least understood the concept behind bringing my head up to breath, rather than making a complete halt just to fill my lungs with precious oxygen.

I even got mother to buy me a pair of swimming trunks. Nylon biker shorts, really; blue, with some floral patterns in white, they definitely looked somewhat feminine. I didn’t let that stop me. I’d change in the bathrooms located right next to the pool. We all did. Boys had their own changing/shower space where you’d don your swimming costumes, or your soccer kit. There weren’t any lockers so we’d just leave our bags in there. It was then that I started going through people’s school bags, looking for their wallets. I’d identify a rich-looking bag, quickly rifle through the pants and pull out any cash I came across. After returning the clothes same way I found them, I’d walk out trying to act normal. I did this a couple of times without getting caught, and used the stolen money to buy my first film camera.

I’d always been into photography, and was at that time obsessed with Mo’ Amin. Amin was a legendary Kenyan-Asian photojournalist. He’d been to all the hotspots in the region, from Somalia, to Zanzibar during a coup in the early 60s. When he had his arm blown off during an assignment, he recovered, got a prosthetic, and kept on working. His tragic death in a 1996 plane crash was surreal. The Ethiopian Airlines flight he’d boarded to Nairobi was hijacked, only to run out of fuel off the Comoros coast. I would look at Amin’s photobooks and dream of travelling as much as he had. A camera seemed to be the magic wand to make that happen, and I was eager to acquire one. Getting my parents to buy me one was out of the question. I could have saved my lunch money, KSHS 50 daily, and accumulated enough for the camera. But that would have taken several weeks, and, after all, forbidden fruit tastes sweetest. I was experimenting with being a thug, and chose to go all the way in.

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On Reading … (Part III)

Another publication that suffered from serious malnutrition in representing people of  color was the Tintin collection. Instead, the comic series made up for this dearth via numerous stereotypical depictions of Native Americans and Asians. When Tintin finally chose to include Africans, the caricatures were more than offensive. They were over the top; the author dug deep into Europe’s stock of racist African images and paraded these within the covers. Cannibals wielding a humongous pot seeking to make a meal of Tintin and his pet Snowy? Check. A jungle seething with venomous snakes and vicious wildlife? Check. Naked, bone-clad witch doctors? Check. Tintin Au Congo had all these and more. It’s quite wild when you think about it, really The Congo, after bearing the brunt of Belgium and French colonial occupation, was subsequently subjected to cartoonist Georges Remi’s civilizing pen. Remi, more well-known as Herge’, reverts to 18th century iconography in portraying Africans. Herge’s Congolese characters are, much like Joseph Conrad’s, brutes with vaguely human features.

Working with literature in high school was a joy. I had the privilege of learning under teachers who truly enjoyed language and what it could achieve. Kiswahili literature, Fasihi, was taught to us by Misters Ruo and Sarara. Shamba la Wanyama, a Swahili translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, was just annoying. The language seemed archaic. There was little about the diction that was creative, flippant, and dynamic, attributes I associated with Kenya’s street and vernacular languages. Rather, Shamba felt heavily weighed down by grammatical structure. The ideas therein made much sense, however. I could wholly identify with the key questions raised about distribution of national resources and the elitism that accompanied political office. Aside from that, the rest was simply too lofty.

Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema was more my thing. The romance novel was, in retrospect, not very politically ambitious. It adopted a neoliberal outlook without much in the way of critical engagement. Characters were poor and impoverished not due to the economic policies instituted at the national level, but because of their own individual circumstances. Nevertheless, the text approached language with a reverence I appreciated. And communities were not merely pawns in an expansive game of chess, but actually individual subjects whose dreams, desires, and fears were worth understanding. The novel might have been utopian, but unlike Orwell’s Shamba La Wanyama, it did not limit human lives to production and labor. Creativity was a vital part of Walibora’s world. The lyricism in his language was refreshing; it paid homage to the great poetic tradition in Kiswahili. More importantly, his word choice enabled him to better tug at our teenage heartstrings. Sometimes the characters underwent extremely sad experiences; for instance, the protagonist was mistreated by his guardian, an aunt who accommodated him after he was orphaned. Other times there was fear, so palpable it vaulted from off the page. Like when the main character runs for his life, pursued by a knife-wielding childhood rival. And, of course, there was love. Lots of love: the innocent kind of love between young friends exploring their new physical awareness; the sellable kind of love that was transacted between characters; and the unrequited love that Walibora’s hero repeatedly got invitations to, each time fleeing in the opposite direction.

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The River & The Source

Leading us in English literary studies was Joshua Musee, a man who has remained my friend to this day.  There was much that we read together, but The Burdens by John Ruganda and Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source stood out. Musee’s class readings of Ruganda’s play dramatized the work into our classroom space. He basically performed the text with his voice. Ogola’s novel was phenomenal. In the 2 years that I used it for my fourth form national exams, I must have re-read it about 10 times. There were many passages I could recite, especially the refrains that occur in the text and which Ogola composes as a chorus to the larger narrative. Akoko Obanda, the protagonist, came alive to me in the form of my maternal grandmother. Her great granddaughter, Vera, was a role model. I lived, breathed, and identified with these personalities. There was nothing abstract about this fiction. Ogola’s was a true novel. Becky, Vera’s sister, a young woman who vigorously wielded her sexuality, eventually succumbs to AIDS. This hit close to home. My mom’s eldest brother, after whom I’m named, had passed away about 4 years prior, due to complications with HIV/AIDS. These were the early days of the disease, at least in Kenya. A diagnosis, if there ever was one, often came very late, and was publicly understood to be a death sentence. I witnessed family friends, 2 couples in fact, die in the same manner; first the wives, then the husbands. Add to that list one of my dad’s younger sister, Aunty Wanjiku – a really funny, vibrant woman. A literary examination of Ogola’s narrative wasn’t so much a close reading analysis as a reflection on the lives my community and extended family lived.

Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword affected me in ways I had not anticipated. On the one hand there was a great sense of adventure, as a group of children travelled across the Bavarian countryside fleeing from Nazi Germany. In this way, The Silver Sword sowed an interest in understanding World War II that has endured since then. And yet, there was horror. Lots of it. Though certainly written as a children’s book, and hence void of the graphic brutality that other WWII narratives such as Saving Private Ryan depict, Serraillier’s work had an underlying sense of fear that was palpable. I understood  the Polish family’s misery as they fought starvation and the elements, all while fleeing the SS and evading capture. There is certainly the sense that this is a group of siblings who have been torn apart; and when healing finally arrives, it will only cover emotional wounds that are too deep to ever forget.

Both the picaresque and the humor of Wind in the Willows made it a truly remarkable text. Toad, the protagonist, sets off on a voyage down the river he has lived beside for many years. Many exploits await (him?) her in the journey ahead. What drew me to this book most, however, was the sense of travel and freedom. The world was truly Toad’s oyster and he went about savoring it. The inquisitiveness and curiosity that are behind Toad’s acquisition of a boat, preparation for the trip, and finally saying goodbye to friends before heading out are the same feelings I experience before each trip, even today. Each day on the road presents itself as a new opportunity to re-invent myself. That’s a rare gift we nomads have; routines have a way of wearing us down to a monotonous set of habits. Thankfully, the open road beckons!